We found small plate heaven in the Northland

Repeal 18th tries to do everything—small plates, hearty entrees, cocktails, desserts, live music —and does it all well.

Generally speaking, hip dining in Kansas City happens in the middle—the middle of the city, that is. If you’re coming from the bedroom communities of Johnson County, you may head north to the Crossroads Arts District, Westport, or the Country Club Plaza but for most, north is a direction seldom traveled in search of dinner. The exception to the rule would be Justus Drugstore, an eatery so far north than many feel a passport is necessary to gain entrance.

But with the opening of Repeal 18th at 1825 Burlington St., North Kansas City has its very own hot spot. With executive chef Bryan Sparks writing the creative, seasonal and shareable menu and Darrell Loo creating cocktails, Repeal 18th is the eatery that downtown North Kansas City was sorely missing.

The restaurant opened in late June after a whirlwind of activity. Owners Ed Collins and daughter, Ann Cook, purchased the building that formerly housed Johnny’s Backyard. The space is unrecognizable now as dark colors coat the walls and the dining room opens into a transitional indoor/outdoor space before opening to a large patio, complete with outdoor stage.

The menu comprises polished versions of what Sparks remembers from childhood, served in a manner that invites conversation. The space lacks televisions—this is by design as Collins, Sparks and Loo all hope to foster conversation among the people at the table, not online or on the screen.

To that end, the menu is tapas-heavy. A listing of twelve small plates offer a sort of “best of” the Midwest—deviled eggs, steakburger sliders, chicken wings, corn dogs, pickles and even sweetbreads. Each dish is approachable but distinct so there’s plenty to discuss sans screens.

We started with a few intriguing choices—monkfish corn dogs, steak sliders, roasted Brussels sprouts, sweetbreads and chips and dip. While the other dishes were more exotic, the steak sliders were still memorable, dressed with bacon jam and shallot marmalade on a Farm to Market brioche bun. The Brussels sprouts were equally good, roasted but not charred and topped with a grainy bacon mustard vinaigrette that had more tang than expected. As the vinaigrette melted into the veg, the flavors mellowed ever so slightly and made the whole dish sing.

For the more intrepid, the monkfish corndogs blend an unexpected protein with a classic preparation. Monkfish, while delicious, is generally considered a “trash” fish and not used with the same regularity that some such as snapper or mahi mahi are. But its similarity in texture to lobster is what gives it an edge in this dish as the light and crispy tempura batter clings to it. Dipped in preserved mango ketchup, it’s a fun twist on a classic.

Twists continue with the the chips and dip plate, where rye toast points are offered with a brown butter and parsnip dip drizzled with scallion oil. And for those that either grew up on the farm or in the culinary center, fried sweetbreads hit the spot when dipped in lemon crème fraîche or brown butter sauce.

But the menu isn’t all tapas. There are larger plates as well and as the menu transitions into fall and winter, it will feature heartier additions. Three pastas will be added, all made in house, including an English pea ravioli, a linguini puttanesca and an analoni tossed with grilled fruits de mer. Three soups will also be added, hopefully drawing in the lunch crowd.

Among the entrees, the southern scallops are a standout. Sparks spent a significant stint of his career working his way up the line at Jax Fish House on the Plaza so you can expect a perfectly seared and meltingly tender scallop. Served atop sturdy braised collard greens with hearty chunks of pork belly and all lounging in a cider sauce, this dish surprises with its heartiness and balanced melange of textures.

If you’re looking for a quick but filling lunch, the pork belly BLT is a sure thing. Leaving more pedestrian bacon behind, thick chunks of pork belly are topped with fried egg, lettuce and tomato. While I am just as much of a fan of pork belly as the next food writer, too often it is either too fatty or too tough to eat in sandwich form. This was neither and when joined by fresh cut fries, it was a balanced plate that was neither priestly nor decadent.

Save the decadence for dessert and cocktails. Loo spent the last year behind the bar at Julep Cocktail Club in Westport and is ready to flex his considerable craft cocktail muscle. He’s starting with a robust menu of classics, including the tastiest whiskey sour I’ve had in ages—no fluorescent green sauce present. On the seasonal side, he’s brought back some classics of his own design, including the Geisha, an interesting mix of oolong tea infused Ford’s Gin, lemon, chrysanthemum, grapes and Peychaud’s bitters. With a chrysanthemum blossom floating in the coupe, it’s a beautiful way to start at a restaurant named for the prohibition law.

A robust wine list is available with options at nearly every price point. The beer list skews toward the lighter side but there are a few craft options as well. And whiskey—there’s quite a bit of whiskey to choose from.

To end a meal at Repeal 18th, you could choose one of the seasonal desserts like the plum tart that I enjoyed or you could go for a classic—deconstructed s’mores. Yes, yes, I know that “deconstructed” is becoming passé but you’ll still love the thick homemade graham cookie topped with slabs of ganache and torched marshmallow. It’s all the flavors of campfire without having to launder your clothes immediately.

Of course, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have dinner and a show? Repeal 18th has that covered as well with live entertainment Wednesday through Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. Paul and Jack’s Tavern shares a fence line with the gastropub and they see no reason to compete with the noise level. However, when veteran performer Lonnie McFadden straps on the old tap shoes and starts hoofing and singing, you’ll never realize that there’s another venue around. And after the music stops at Paul and Jack’s, Repeal 18th will welcome late night jazz on the outdoor stage.

Kansas City is made up of some interesting dividing lines and the river is one of them. But as you enjoy your seared scallops and tangy daiquiri—one that doesn’t include any yellow #5 or high fructose corn syrup—you can almost forget that you’ve gone just a scosh north of the river.

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